It was 1977, only a couple of months before the original Star Wars movie was released, when my elementary school classmates and I shuffled up the steps of the long, yellow school bus. We all sat quietly and clutched our brown-bag lunches as the handwritten name badges our teacher made for us swung back and forth across our chests in cadence with the motions of the creaky old bus.
My father had just pushed me to read William W. Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay. The text was a little advanced for a second grader, but I soaked it up with abandon. The watermen characters on the pages of that book became my childhood heroes.
We were headed for Tangier Island, Virginia, an isolated Chesapeake watermen’s community, to see how the islanders lived and learn about the crabbing industry. For me, it was a chance to get face-to-face with real-life watermen. But the weather had other ideas — we were stuck inside for most of the day.
Today Tangier Island is home to around 450 people. It’s a hook-shaped piece of marsh and sand, only 3 miles long and a mile wide. The total area of the island is only about 1.2 square miles and, thanks to climate change, is slowly disappearing into the water around it. It lies nearly in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, about 12 miles off the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Reachable only by boat, the island is largely cut off from mainland life and culture.
I remember telling my father in 1977 that I wanted to go back, but circumstances prevented my return until nearly 40 years later in 2017, when I was given an assignment to cover the island’s fisheries with Chesapeake Bay photographer Jay Fleming. I was excited about the trip not only because Fleming has deep connections in the waterman community, but also because he is almost completely unafraid of approaching a waterman engaged in crabbing, fishing, soft-crab shedding — you name it. I knew we’d get to engage with some authentic old salts on this trip.
Fleming meets me at the ferry landing, and soon we are speeding past the crab shanties that pepper the waters around Tangier. These stilted, patched-together shacks are where watermen keep their boats, tend to their gear and do business with other watermen. Some shanty owners buy “peeler crabs” (blue crabs about to shed their shell) and then hold them in long holding tables flooded with seawater until they become soft.
One of the shanties stands out from the others, so we tie up alongside. The white shack has “We Believe Jesus” and an ichthys painted on its side. As we scramble up the steps, a pack of cats comes to see what’s happening. “That’s Ann Coulter,” says shanty owner and Tangier Island mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. “Samuel Alito and Barry Goldwater are around here somewhere.” Each cat is named after a conservative pundit or politician. Eskridge, who has lived on the island his entire life, works at his crab-shedding operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “The crabs start hardening as soon as they’ve cast off their old shell, so we need to fish them out as soon as that happens, whether it’s 1 a.m. or 4 p.m. Then we pack them in wet newspapers and ship them off to all the big cities on the East Coast.”
Eskridge has a tanned, weathered face and speaks in a thick dialect that’s handed down from the Cornishman who first inhabited the island. “This is a hard life,” he says. “But those of us who work the water wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t want nobody telling me how to live my life or do my job. Some years we do really well. Other years it’s a struggle. Ain’t nothing we can do about it, so we keep positive.”
The next morning we’re exploring the grassy flats that surround the island where peeler crabs come to seek shelter before they shed and become vulnerable to predation. Watermen work the area in their scrape boats, indigenous island craft that pull smooth-lipped dredges behind them to catch peeler crabs for the soft-shell market. It’s back-breaking work sifting through each eelgrass-packed dredge looking for peeler crabs, and its often done by the island’s oldest watermen. One waterman we spot that morning among the scraping fleet is Leon McMann, who at age 85 is the oldest working waterman on Tangier.
The island’s youngest waterman, 12-year-old Sam Pruitt Parks, is nearby working some oyster aquaculture floats. It’s one of only a few aquaculture operations here; most watermen still rely on the wild oyster harvest, which runs opposite the crab season. “I’m the youngest waterman on the island,” Sam says. Most young people are moving off the island looking for jobs that don’t involve crabbing or oystering, but Sam seems committed. “This is what I want to do, and I’m not going nowhere.” He later tells me that he’d recently saved up enough money to buy his own skiff.
Closer to town that afternoon, an aluminum deadrise boat is the center of activity on the island. Workboat after workboat ties up to her starboard side to sell the day’s catch. “Slow day today, Johnny,” says one skipper as a bearded black man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth shuffles the heavy baskets of crabs. Fleming learns from the gentleman that his name is William Davis. “I come down with the boat six days a week. I won’t retire, I’ll work until I die,” Davis tells Fleming.
Rising fuel prices, the cost of equipment, declines in finfish and shellfish populations and government regulations make life tough on Tangier’s watermen, and many of the young people on Tangier are leaving for the mainland in search of better jobs and a culture with less isolation. “Watermen won’t be around forever,” says the owner of a local takeout seafood restaurant. “I’m not even sure if the island will be here in 20 years,” says a woman in line.
No matter what happens, it’s obvious that many of Tangier’s residents have no intention of leaving. I’d like to think they’re exchanging the certainty of shore-based life for the independence they enjoy by living on this isolated, beautiful island. Tangier’s watermen? My guess is they’ll be here until the last patch of sand slips beneath the water.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue.